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Today was the second gathering of the three-session Advent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Our first session last week focused on the meaning of Advent. Our theme for this week was Incarnation.

My talk addressed the extraordinary claim of Christianity that God becomes human. I talked about God’s decision to incarnate, using Ignatius’ contemplation of the Incarnation for the vehicle for that. I then reflected on the Incarnation as both the revelation of God’s love for us and our security that God cannot be separated from us. Finally I addressed the challenge to us of Incarnation: What difference does it make to how I live my life that God became human? What challenge does Incarnation present to me?

After my talk, I gave the participants time to engage in a contemplation of the incarnation and we ended with some group discussion.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 18:20.) A copy of the the handout participants used for their individual reflection during the session is here.

She Said Yes

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of The Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a mouthful, but the full title reminds people that when the Church speaks of “immaculate conception” it is referring to Mary, and not to Jesus.

In celebration of this feast of Mary, I thought I’d share one of the many annunciation poems that I love. Here is Paul Mariani’s poem, I Did Say Yes.

Thou heardst me, truer than toungue, confess…
Gerard Manley Hopkins

The barely prayable prayer as the words fall away,
Words unguessed or unguessable, soft silence only,
Penetrant silence, the pit, then something stirring…
Importunate, unquenchable mind, astray
Or aswarm, attuned for odd moments after, then
Drifting. Then a lull & a lifting, then self flickering back,
As the parched sunflower turns towards the sun…

A woman kneels, head bent forward, each cell attendant
Upon the flame which, consuming, does not consume,
But gently enwrapts, caressing, filling herself with itself,
The burning clouds lingering, then hovering off, like
Mist off a mountain, here in this kitchen, this cell, here,
Where the timeless crosses with time, this chiasmus,
Infinity & now, nowhere & always, this cosmos, this fresh-

Found dimension, all attention gone over now, as flame
Flickers and whispers, all care turning to ash, all fear,
All consequence even, all given over, ah, lover to lover
Now, saying yes, yes, whatever you will, my dear,
Yes echoing down the long halls of time, yes,
In spite of all disappointment, of the death of Love even,
The barely sayable yes again, yes again, yes I will. Yes.

This morning was the final gathering of the four-session Fall scripture study/prayer I offered at Our Lady or Lourdes in Minneapolis, titled from Creation to Annunciation. The series emphasized our need to pray with – and not just study – scripture, with a focus on what the passages we considered teach us about our response to God.

Today’s session focused on Annunciations and Responses to God’s Invitation. My talk centered around three figures who have roles leading up to the birth of Christ: Joseph, Mary and Elizabeth. We also talked about the fact that God always invites our participation, never forcing our response. We had a rich discussion about what we learn from these three – particularly Mary and Joseph – about our role in the Incarnation.

As we continue to reflect on the Advent readings, I encouraged participants to spend some time reflecting on the following questions:

Do I say “yes” to God in the small, everyday situations of my life?

Where are the places I have difficulty saying yes to God?

When the yes is hard, do I ask God for the grace to respond to his call?

You can access a recording of the my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 53:14. Parts may be faint, as there was a lot of participation by those present.)

This week was the first session of the three-session Advent Reflection Series I’m offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law this month.

Advent is a difficult time to do programming at the law school, since classes end this week and students go into study mode for exams. Still, I think it is important to mark this important period and so I offer something each Advent for those students, faculty and staff who can make the time.

The theme of this first session was Why Does Advent Matter? I opened the session with Henri Nouwn’s Advent Prayer, which appears below. I then asked the participants to introduce themselves and say a bit about their understanding of Advent; the sharing was extraodrinarily rich.

My talk focused on the meaning of Advent and an important aspect of the active waiting we do during this season: engaging in the process of internal transformation. I addressed three questions: Do we want to be transformed? Do we believe we can be transformed? What is the transformation God asks of us?

I think the first of those is a very important question because the transformation we are asked to make is a major one – a complete offering of ourselves – making ourselves an instrument of God’s love and mercy. And I think often the answer to the question of whether we are willing to effect such a major change is – if not no – then at least something less than 100% yes. We have a tendency to resist change because change creates discomfort. This is a fact that has been true of saints and sinners throughout history. Our willingness to be transformed is something worth spending some time reflecting on during Advent.

Here is Henri Nouwen’s Advent Prayer:

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for
Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”

With apologies, the recorder was not functioning and so I have no podcast of that talk I gave. However, here is a copy of the handout I distributed; we used the first page for individual reflection during the session.

An Advent Message

Yesterday afternoon was the Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony at the University of St. Thomas, an event attended by students, faculty, staff and those living near the university campus in St. Paul. The program, which was intentionally short because it was conducted outside, included an Advent Message.

It was my privilege to be invited to deliver the Advent Message for the ceremony. Here is the message I shared:

There is a song by Leonard Cohen titled Everybody Knows. Its lyrics catalogue (as the title suggests) the things we all know: Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody knows that the good guys lose, everybody knows that the poor stay poor and the rich get rich, that everybody lies, that the deal is rotten, that the Plagues is coming. And — the song keeps telling us — that’s just how it goes. That’s inevitably and inexorably the way it is.

What is lacking in the vision presented in Cohen’s song is that which is the central message of Advent: Hope.

Advent is the time during which we “wait in joyful hope.”

Hope is not walking around with blinders. Hope does not mean we fail to see those situations where the dice are loaded and the good guys lose. Hope does not mean we ignore the pain of the poor staying poor and the rich getting rich.

But, but, but, it means we don’t accept that “that’s just how it goes.” We do not throw up our hands and say that’s just the way it is.

Throughout Advent we listen to readings from the Book of Isaiah, which opens with a scathing indictment of the people of Israel. God laments, “Sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children…Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me.”

But even in the midst of judgment, while cataloging the great sins of the people and the extent to which they have fallen away from God – is the promise that things do not have to be this way.

The promise that the swords will be beat into plowshares, and the spears into pruning hooks.
The promise that in the midst of darkness there is light.
The promise that the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.
The promise that the Lord will destroy death forever and will wipe away the tears from all faces.

One preacher summarized Isaiah’s Advent message like this: “No matter how much the world shatters into pieces, we carry in ourselves a vision of wholeness that we all sense is our true home and that welcomes us.

And just as Isaiah called the people to repent and prepare the way of the Lord, we are called to do the same – not only in Advent, but in each day of our lives.

This is important. Our waiting is not passive. Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom requires our active participation. We don’t get to just sit around complacently and wait for the vision to become reality. (It’s not a: “I’ll just sit here and snooze a bit; wake me when the kingdom comes.”) Instead, we are called to labor with God, to participate in the transformation of the world.

And so we each need to be asking ourself: What will I do during this Advent to give reality to the rule of Immanuel? How will I commit myself – in Advent and every day – to my part in making manifest God’s Kingdom.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Francis Xavier, patron saint of foreign missions and one of the group who, with St. Ignatius of Loyola, founded the Society of Jesus.

In 1541, Francis Xavier was one of the first Jesuit missionaries to be sent to the Far East. It is there that he spent the rest of his life preaching, baptizing and establishing Christian communities. He converted tens of thousands to Christianity in Japan, India and the Philippines. Although there was much working against him – language barriers, inadequate money, resistance, to name a few – he had an extraordinary zeal for his work. In the words of one biographer,

Holy zeal may properly be said to have formed the character of St. Francis Xavier. Consumed with an insatiable thirst of the salvation of souls and of the dilatation of the honor and kingdom of Christ on earth, he ceased not with tears and prayers to conjure the Father of all men not to suffer those to perish whom he had created in his own divine image, made capable of knowing and loving him, and redeemed with the adorable blood of his Son… He rejoiced in afflictions and sufferings, and said that one who had once experienced the sweetness of suffering for Christ, will ever after find it worse than death to live without a cross. By humility the saint was always ready to follow the advice of others, and attributed all blessings to their prayers which he most earnestly implored.

Zeal is also one of the primary characteristics associated with another of the saints who is near to my heart – Vincent de Paul, who, like Francis, is described as having a zeal for the conversion of souls.

On this day on which we celebrate St. Francis Xavier, may we pray for his zeal in our labors with Christ.

Absence of Pretense

I receive a daily quote from Inward/Outward . Not surprisingly for a daily reflection series, some resonate with me more than others.

The reflection that appeared in my in-box this morning was authored by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who observes

There’s so much pretending out there. We have to pretend that we’re not smarter than our boss. We have to pretend we love our partner more than we do. We have to pretend that everything is fine. There’s just so much pretend in our lives we have to muster up, I think the Church needs to be a place where that doesn’t have to happen. Just for one hour during the week, they can exhale and the truth about everything can be spoken in a sacred space.

I think there is enormous truth to the fact that we live with an enormous amount of pretense. The almost inevitable response to “How are you?” is “Fine” when the realty is anything but. We often feign a level of strength and competent we do not feel. We pretend things don’t bother us when they do.

There is even greater truth to the fact that we need space where we can let go of the pretense. Perhaps that place is Church, as Bolz-Weber suggests. Perhaps it is a trusted friend or group of friends. (I am sometimes able to gather with a group of people I went to grade school with. As one of the group observed, it is hard to engage in pretense with people who knew you when you were still wiping your nose on your sleeve.)

But whoever and wherever it occurs, we have to have some place where we can be exactly who we are, with no pretense.

Do you have such a person or place?

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